Chef vs Chef – Sarah Stewart and Jo Hognestad
Pho, pizza and beer under one roof. You ready for this, Vancouver? We butted in on a conversation between Sing Sing Head Chef Jo Hognestad and Donnelly Group’s Head of Training and Development, Chef Sarah Stewart, to get the lowdown on the new Main Street hang.
Like most good ideas, the concept for Sing Sing Beer Bar floated to the surface after a few beers.
You can credit founder of Back and Forth Bar Reagan Truong for spotting the first flickering of the idea at the bottom of his pint glass a couple years ago, his friend and fellow entrepreneur Jeff Donnelly for encouraging him to pull it out and shake it off, and Chef Jo Hognestad for being in the right place at the right time with the right flavours.
With the talents of Chef Jo Hognestad in the kitchen and the support of the Donnelly Group development team including Head of Training and Development Chef Sarah Stewart, behind him, Truong took that idea and turning it into a fully formed concept.
Sing Sing offers comfort food at a beer bar. Pho, pizza, shareables, and a revolving selection of local craft beer in an artfully considered space on Main Street.
We pulled a stump up next to Chef Sara and Chef Jo to listen in on whatever chefs talk about when they’ve just successfully opened a new venue.
DG: So you two are best friends now, right? That’s what happens when you work together on a new restaurant…
Chef Sarah: Well, when you have to spend a lot of time hanging out in a kitchen testing out recipes, either you hate each other or you learn to enjoy each other’s company.
DG: You don’t seem like the types of people to hate on each other. You aren’t just always in the back swearing at each other, are you?
Chef Jo: We swear and throw food, but it’s all in good fun.
DG: So what exactly is Sing Sing?
Chef Sarah: It’s a really cool place to drink on Main Street with unpretentious food and something unique, fun and cool in that it also serves great pizza and pho.
DG: A Vietnamese spot that serves beer and pizza! Do you think Vancouver’s ready for something like that?
Chef Jo: It’s not the weirdest combination. If Vancouver can deal with a hot dog with ice cream on it, then they should be ready for Sing Sing. It’s a little different than most of the Donnelly Group places in Vancouver, considering that they’re all pubs and this one’s more of a restaurant and food primary, as well as beer forward.
Chef Sarah: Yeah, I’m ready for pizza and pho, but I don’t think I’m ready for ice cream on hot dogs. Look, it’s different, but it’s going to fit right in. I think Vancouver is totally ready and especially in that area. It’s something casual and fun and it’s not taking itself too seriously. Had I not been a part of the project, I’d genuinely be excited to hang out there.
Chef Jo: But it is a bit of a departure for the Group.
Chef Sarah: Totally, and I think you’re in a really neat position, Jo. You’re doing something new with Donnelly that doesn’t fit its regular reputation, so I think it will be really well received on Main Street.
DG: Sarah, you’re on the executive chef team and Jo, you’re now the Head Chef of Sing Sing. How do two people in your positions work together to bring a new restaurant into the world?
Chef Sarah: In the beginning stages, before we met Jo, Chris Stewart (another member of the exec chef team) and I did a lot of work just coming up with base recipes, so there was somewhere to start from. And then when Jo came onboard, it was about letting him into the process and having him take the next step, taking our base recipes and making them work with his vision and taste. I try to help him through that process, familiarizing where I can with the different ingredients, order processes and all of the procedures that we go through as a company…But I’m not going beyond this phase of helping Jo develop the recipes.
DG: So once the training wheels are kicked off, you’re on your own, Jo?
Chef Jo: Yeah, and it’s very exciting. I’ve done an opening before, but for such a big company (Earls), way back in the day. We had 15 to 20 different chefs training on a certain station and doing this and that. I feel like I’m one of all those 20 people and just doing every job–it’s really exciting to do this kind of work.
DG: How would you describe your cooking styles and where did you learn them from?
Chef Sarah: Oh, that’s quite the question. I don’t know if I have a particular cooking style. I think that everything that you do is a product of all of the different people you’ve worked with before and the little things you learned along the way. I haven’t spent years in a particular region of France or have such a culinary pedigree to that extent. I think most of my cooking is influenced by all the amazing and different chefs that I’ve worked with along the way.
Chef Joe: Likewise, I wouldn’t say there’s one type of cuisine or style I really have, but in a sense, I’ve always had a soft spot for like Southeast Asian food and travelling around in that area for six months was very eye-opening. And coming back with a culinary attitude right out of school, I kind of realized going from place to place, picking up on new things and creating my own dishes, that I always had a sense for more of an Asian style of food. As well as growing up in Norway and coming to Canada and dealing with that, I kinda get that home-cooking sense as well.
DG: How are you going to celebrate the opening?
Chef Sarah: I won’t even be here for the opening, not even for the dry run, I’m going to be up north. But what are you going to do, Jo?
Chef Jo: I haven’t really thought about it yet.
Chef Sarah: I’m going to call you from Prince George and buy you guys a bottle of Champagne!
DG: Any goals for Sing Sing for 2019?
Chef Jo: For the restaurant, I want it to be well received and to be the number one restaurant in the Donnelly Group portfolio. And personally, I want to set myself up to do more backcountry snowboarding and explore a little bit.
DG: You deserve it. Congrats on the opening, Chefs!